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Saturday, December 20, 2008

FAMILY TIES

I have been contemplating, of late, the passing of Saxon England. It died, officially, on the battlefield at Hastings in 1066, but to tell you the truth it was not badly missed. Consider Edward, the penultimate Saxon King of England. They called him “the Confessor” but that was more of a twelfth century public relations gambit than an actual description of the real ninth century King. Edward had his own mother arrested on trumped up charges of adultery just so he could seize her property, if that gives you an idea of his family life. In 1045 Edward married Edith Godwin. He was about forty-five years old at the time and Edith was all of sixteen. The only thing they had in common was that Edith’s father, Leofric Godwin, the powerful Earl of Wessex, had turned Edward’s half brother, Alfred, over to his enemies. They had him blinded. Alfred later died from his wounds and Edward was on record as saying that the only way he would forgive the Godwins is if they brought Alfred back from the dead. So I suspect that Edward’s marriage to Edith Godwin was not a love match. Leofric owned most of southern England and his wife was Lady Godiva of naked horse riding fame. In addition to Edith they had produced five sons, in descending order of seniority and brains, Sweyn, Harold, Tostig, Gyrth and Leofwine. And by all accounts they were all trouble. In 1046 Sweyn was accused of seducing the Abbess of the monastery of Leominster. The modern translation of the Saxon term for “seduction” is “rape”, and King Edward had Sweyn banished. It took a year for Leofric to blackmail Edward into letting the little monster come home. Sweyn never forgot daddy’s delay in rescuing him, and Edward became determined to get rid of the whole Godwin family.In 1051 the citizens of Dover got fed up with an extended visit by some of Edward’s Norman relatives and they staged a riot. It is likely that Edward’s relatives had intended to inspire just that response because Edward immediately ordered Leofric to punish the citizens Dover. But since Dover paid rent to Leofric, he would be punishing himself. So Leofric refused. And that gave Edward the excuse he needed. He ordered Leofric and his sons banished from England, (they hid out in Ireland and France) and Edward shipped poor Edith off to a nunnery. But in this dispute, the youngest son, Leofwine Godwin, sided with Edward. It was the “smart” play for Leofwine since, as the youngest son he was never going to get rich living off his older brothers’ leavings.But the banishment only lasted a year before Leofric and his sons invaded England and forced Edward to return all of their seized lands and let Edith out of the monastery. And, of course, Leofric also forced his own youngest son, Leofwine, into exile in Scandinavia; after all, turnabout is fair play. Leofric died in 1055, not long after the death of Sweyn, cause unknown in either case. That made Harold the head of the family, and that made his brother Tostig his problem. Tostig was running Northumbria and had doubled the taxes while boozing it up and stealing from the local nobels. In 1065, while Totsig was out of town, the noblemen of York, Lincoln and Nottingham rose up and slaughtered Tostig’s sycophants and marched on Oxford, the local government center. King Edward decided he didn’t have the energy to fight and Harold agreed with him, and together they turned the government of Northumbria over to the rebel leader, Morkere. Totsig was out of a job and very unhappy with his brother. He immediately sailed for Scandinavia.Near the end of 1065 Edward fell into a coma and finally died on January the fifth, 1066. Harold, never one to waste time, was crowned King, Harold II, on January sixth, the first king ever crowned in Westminster Abby. And poor Edith, the daughter of Lady Godiva, the girl who had been a queen at 16, a divorcee and a nun at 24, and a queen again at 25, was now, at the advanced old age of 26, a widow and a nun again. Her loving brother Harold, shipped her off to a brand new abbey at Winchester, where she died in December of 1075, at the age of 36. The Saxons were very hard on their women.
Almost as hard as they were on their men and kings; the new King Harold was facing two immediate challenges. From Normandy there was Edward’s cousin William, who claimed that Harold had promised him the throne. And on September the Eighth a Viking army under the King of Norway, landed at the mouth of the river Tyne. With the Vikings were Harold’s brothers Tostig and Leofwine. Who was it who said that family ties were the best of ties, the worst of ties? I think it was me.Harold immediately marched his army north, moving so quickly that on September twenty-fifth he caught the Vikings without their armor on, at Stamford Bridge, just North of York. According to legend, Harold met Tostig before the battle and offered him a chance to change sides - again. Tostig asked what Harold could offer the Vikings if they would peacefully go home. Harold replied that he could offer each of them six feet of English soil, or more if they were taller. Making peace and saving lives did not interest the Saxons very much. Harold’s army than fell on the Vikings and almost wiped them out. It was a great victory, spoiled only when word arrived that William and his Norman army had landed on English soil on September twenty-seventh.Harold now marched his exhausted men 240 miles south to meet William’s army at Hastings on October the fourteenth. There, nine hours of slaughter reduced the vaunted Godwin family to just Edith, sewing away in her nunnery. William was remembered as the “Conqueror”, and Harold as the “Conquered”. But really, history must have been glad to see the back side of such a bloodthirsty pack of cannibals as the ruling Saxons of England.

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

IRONY AS FUEL

I guess the irony was that if it had to happen, this was the best of all possible places and times for it to happen. It was a Saturday, so the streets around Washington Square Park at the bottom of 5th Avenue, and the junction of West 4th Street were not as crowded as they would have been on a regular work day. That meant the rescue efforts were not slowed. The building in which the fire had been sparked was the ten story Asch Building, a modern “fire proof” structure. And the flames were born just after 4:30 p.m., so it was still daylight. Winter darkness would have made the hell that was about to descend on lower Manhattan, just that much worse. It was March 25, 1911.
The first alarm was sent in from Box Number 289 on the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place, just one block East of Washington Square Park. It was just 4:40 p.m. The fire at that moment was less than five minutes old. The alarm sounded at Company #18 on 12th street. At the sound of the bells the three horses on each unit began to move on their own from their stalls. In addition the lead horse in each team had been trained to pull ropes that opened the fire house doors. The fire horses were eager to answer the alarm. Upstairs the firemen, just as eager, leapt to their lockers, pulled on their boots, baggy pants and great coats. By the time they were sliding down the brass pole all the horses were waiting in place beneath the traces, hanging from the ceiling. The traces were dropped onto the team’s backs and the crews slapped on the leather. Within moments the “steamers” (pumpers able to produce 1,000 gallons of water a minute), the hook and ladder wagon (company #20, carrying the tallest extension ladders in the city - another piece of luck), the hose wagon (company #72) and the supply wagons, all with their crews hanging on for dear life, were speeding their way toward Washington Square Park.In a squat block-sized building at the corner of 10th Avenue/West Side Avenue and Gransevoort Street, the same alarms sounded as well. Here, in the Granesvoort Pumping Station, was the city’s answer to the invention of the skyscraper; five Allis-Chalmers electrical centrifical pumps, able at the flick of a switch to send 300 gallons of water a minute into the pipes. The new High Pressure System was less than five years old and was designed to increase water pressure at each fire hydrant in the district from 25 to at least 90 pounds per square inch. In tests this system had been able to send a stream of water as high as a ten story building. As soon as the alarm sounded on that Saturday afternoon the pumps were turned on. Within three minutes the lines were fully pressurized, before the pumpers had even arrived on the scene . But it was already too late.It was 4:44 p.m. As the first pumper turned the corner onto Greene Street, the horses heading on their own toward the fire plug, reared and suddenly stopped. The firemen on board were almost thrown to the ground. One fireman dismounted to see what had spooked the horses. He saw a bolt of cloth lying in the street. He moved to pick it up before he realized it was a woman’s body, crumpled on the pavement.
As he stood in shock a second woman plummeted to the ground with a sickening thud. He saw smoke pouring out of the upper story windows. On the sidewalk and street were the bodies of previous jumpers.At about the same moment “Hook and Ladder Company # 20” barely made the turn onto Washington Place, when the horses here also reacted with horror to the carnage on the street. Firemen grabbed blankets and nets, designed to catch people leaping out of buildings. But these women, some as young as 13, were dropping from the ninth floor and they ripped right through the fabric and thudded onto the concrete. The rescue nets and blankets were useless.
As Fire Chief Worth arrived firemen were leading the horses and pumpers through the rain of bodies into position. Chief Worth immediately sent in a second alarm. It was 4:48 p.m. As soon as the pumper and ladder units were in position firemen disconnected the horses and led them to Washington Square Park where they could be watered and calmed down.Immediately upon arrival fireman from Company 18 began to fight their way up against the stream of frantic civilians, pouring down the stairs. The firemen found fire on the 8th floor, and per their training they stopped to fight it. To have gone higher would have put them above the fire, a suicidal position in a building blaze.But one floor above them, the fast majority of victims died, some leaping to their deaths as the flames began to engulf their clothing.
Outside the ladder companies began to crank their extensions toward the huddled victims on the ninth floor ledges. But the ladders only reached to the seventh floor. The streams of water from the high pressure hoses, even with the aid of pumpers, could only manage to reach the sixth floor. The desperate women and girls, seeing salvation fall short of reaching them, stepped into space, dropping to their deaths rather than suffer the flames licking at their skirts. Some waited too long and fell like flaming meteors. The corpses were pilling up on the street like discarded dolls. Some were so badly burned it was impossible to tell if they were male or female, some so broken by the fall that they could be gathered into bushel baskets.
Firemen were now dragging their high pressure hoses into the building and up the stairwells, hitting the fire directly. At 4:56 p.m. Chief Worth sent in third alarm. At 4:57 p.m. the last body thudded to the pavement on Greene street. By 5:10 p.m., when the fourth alarm was sounded, the fire was well out. As David Von Drehle noted, “The entire blaze, from spark to embers, lasted half an hour.” (“Triangle, the fire that changed America”)
In that brief span of time the fire had killed 141 people, most of them seamstress for the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. The fireproof building, true to its name, did not burn. Only the furniture and the people inside it did. The building still stands today. It was a day in American history when everything went right and 141 people died in less than 30 minutes.

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Monday, December 15, 2008

BATTLE OF THE BUNNIES

I believe the legend that the first time Major-General Louis Berthier met Napoleon Bonaparte, in March of 1796, he confided to a fireside comrade, “I don’t know why, but the little bas---d scares me.” He was called “Berthier the Ugly” because of his squat build, his hook nose that rose out of his cheeks like a beak, and a head that seemed three times larger than it ought to. In addition he was clumsy and given to chewing his fingernails. Add in a dose of social ineptness and you have Berthier, the man. He was also a genius of detail. He spent his entire adult life in the military, rising through the ranks under the “Old Regime”. He had even fought with distinction under Rochambeu at Yorktown, Virginia in 1781 during the American revolution.
But Napoleon, at 26, was already a comet on the French political scene, while “ugly, little” Berthier, who was 42 years old, had survived the revolution by keeping his huge head so low it could not be conveniently guillotined. But perhaps Berthier sensed impending disaster on that blistery March morning. Perhaps at some level he understood that the “Little Corsican” who stood before him would use him over the next 20 years to slaughter a million Frenchmen and three million others who would die opposing Napoleon. I wonder if he also sensed the sacrifice of all those bunnies, as well.
Napoleon’s amazing string of victories began at Montenotte, in Piedmont on April 12 and continued at the bridge at Lodi on May 10, 1796. Berthier was there, sharing the hardships as Napoleon’s chief of staff, translating Napoleon’s detailed instructions into coherent orders, organizing the advance of his armies from the "Battle of the Pyramids" in Egypt to the capture of Haifa in 1798. And when Napoleon abandoned his Egyptian army in 1799 he was careful to bring Berthier back to France with him. And Berthier repaid his master, insuring the victory pulled from defeat at Marengo, in 1800.Four years later, in the spring of 1805, it was Berthier, a Marshal of France now, who meticulously directed the lightning strike of Le Grande Armiee's swing across the Rhine to crush the Austrians at Ulam, capture Vienna, and defeat the combined Austrian and Russian armies at the Emperor of France’s greatest victory, "Austerlitz". In 1806 Berthier oversaw Napoleon’s crushing of Prussia at "Jena", and the frozen bloodbath against the Russians at "Eylau", followed by the decisive victory over the Czar at "Friedland". By the summer of 1807 Napoleon was the master of Europe, referred to by his implacable English foes as "The Beast of Europe". And he would not have been so accomplished if it were not for the efforts of ugly little Berthier. And so it was obvious that when the Emperor sought an afternoon’s diversion, a summer picnic and a hunt in the countryside outside of Paris, it would be Berthier who would organize the entire affair. Surely the man who could plan the conquest of nations could arrange a simple afternoon’s hunt.They arrived en masse, like a column of revolutionary infantrymen swarming a defensive position. The Emperor went nowhere alone anymore. A regiment of cavalry stood guard. Messengers arrived and were dispatched forth, for an Empire run by one man cannot survive long without assurance that the master is always watching.
There were ambassadors and royalty and a dozen Marshalls covered in glittering gold braid. There were Generals to carry their superior's eyeglasses and purses and fans. There were servants to serve the lunch and keep the Champaign glasses bubbling over. There were chiefs to cook the lamb and fish and chicken Marengo. There were dozens of carriages and wagons to carry them all from their palaces and mansions and back home again. And once the repast was digested the Emperor and his guests put away their knives and Champaign glasses and took up their weapons.Berthier had prepared this too, down to the smallest detail. (That's him in an 'offical' painting above, with the reality edited out of him.) In regard to the hunt, Berthier tried to obtain wild rabbits captured on local farms, but the local peasants had been taxed so heavily to pay for the 'Grande Army' and all that gold braid that they had stripped the local woods and fields of wild game.
So the ever resourceful Berthier had bought every domesticated rabbit in the Paris market, some 30,000 of them in all, fattened in pens and cages all their lives. They had been released the afternoon before, in an adjacent field. There were beaters, to drive the bunnies to the guns, for an Emperor does not have all day to spend stalking his prey. So as the Emperor Napoleon advanced into the field with his shotgun held at the ready, Berthier gave the signal and the beaters advanced. And such was a sight then seen, the likes of which had never been seen before in all of history. And never would be seen again, either.Thirty-thousand Leporidae Oryctolagus cuniculus (European bunny rabbits) charged desperately toward the first human they had seen in 24 hours; humans being the source of all food and warmth in their entire sheltered lives, and the answer to a domesticated rabbit’s hopes and prayers after an endless cold night in the strange, forbidding emptiness of a field; the Emperor Napoleon Bonapart.
If they could have spoken they would have cried out in unison in their little bunny voices, “Take me home, take me home, get me out of here!” But they could not cry out. They could not speak. And so what Napoleon saw and heard, as he entered the field with “rodenticide” in his heart, was thirty thousand rodents stampeding silently, remorselessly, toward him, perhaps with regicide in their hearts. Where they afflicted? Where they part of a devilish English plot to murder him? Napoleon had no way of knowing, and little time to decide. But even if the Emperor suspected the actual cause behind the stamped of cottontails, hunting is not a sport when the prey rush you and offer themselves up to be butchered en masse. The servants thrashed at the rabbits with whips, the ambassadors and royalty snickered behind their lace cuffs and the generals and Marshals of France threw their gold braid between the homesick bunnies and their Emperor. But in the end Napoleon was forced to retreat to his royal coach, and then to withdraw back within the walls of his palace, his afternoon sport spoiled. It was prescience of the night after Waterloo, of the snowy road home from Moscow, of the voyage to exile on Elba and Helena. At a time when no force could stand up to the 'Beast of Europe', Napoleon had been defeated by an army of bunny rabbits. Vive la Peter Cottontail!
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